The real problem with Bill Gates and neoliberal optimism

The progressive left needs to confront the fact that plutocratic philanthropists like Gates care much more about preserving the systems that continue to multiply their wealth.

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“If this is the best of possible worlds, what then are the others?”

-Voltaire

Before the ongoing health crisis began, George Soros was the only American not in politics playing a central role in more conspiracy theories coming out of the populist right than Microsoft founder Bill Gates. This has made many on the left wary of discussing either of these billionaires in critical terms, which is a problem when you really think about the unique roles they play as people positioned to impact government policy in their own country and far beyond.

While Soros is mainly known for his interest in promoting a very specific kind of liberal democracy through his Open Society Foundations, especially in the former Soviet states of Eurasia and other, usually resource rich nations targeted for regime change by the U.S. and its allies, Gates has used his notoriety and well funded foundation in a much more subtle way.

It feels like while no one was looking, the man once accused of being a monopolist in terms of computing had positioned himself as a benevolent technocratic problem solver and advocate for the world’s poorest people.

While there is some truth to this, and his foundation, the status of which may be changed by the announcement that he and his wife of 27 years are divorcing, has helped many groups do good things, there’s also obvious self-interest and a massive PR operation behind the way Gates presents himself to the world.

Long before he began to assert himself as an expert on public health in general and vaccines in particular, Gates’ politics were a mix of enthusiastic tech ‘bro’ culture (which he had a hand in creating) and what we might call the Davos version of neoliberalism, by which I mean a capitalist system guided by the smartest among us, an attribute most easily identified by great wealth.

Showing his focus on a dubious kind of optimism, in 2019 Gates posted a series of graphs that seemed to show immense progress in fighting poverty over the 80 years from 1820-2000 on social media. The graphs, which were produced by economist Max Roser of Our World in Data to demonstrate that, at least in part due to charitable efforts on the part of ridiculously wealthy people like Gates and the benevolence of the free market, global poverty would be a distant memory before the middle of this century. In a happy coincidence, Our World in Data, a non-profit website, is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation,

Leaving aside the fact that most experts now see the paltry $1.70 that’s supposed to lift a person out of ‘extreme poverty’ as insufficient for a person to meet their individual nutritional needs (let alone those of their extended family), as pointed out by a University of London economist, Jason Hickel, “What Roser’s numbers actually reveal is that the world went from a situation where most of humanity had no need of money at all to one where today most of humanity struggles to survive on extremely small amounts of money. The graph casts this as a decline in poverty, but in reality what was going on was a process of dispossession that bulldozed people into the capitalist labor system, during the enclosure movements in Europe and the colonization of the global south.”

Hickel also makes the point that the greatest contributor to poverty reduction under these numbers, up to 80% of it, is the People’s Republic of China, which doesn’t quite fit the story that Gates and neoliberal optimists like Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker are trying to tell about the liberating power of so-called free markets.

One popular conspiracy theory concerning the former Microsoft head, usually disseminated in very simple terms through memes, is that Gates was somehow involved in the ‘creation’ of the novel coronavirus in order to put microchips into everyone by way of vaccines. The reasons given for this vary widely (for example, some Christian fundamentalists believe the shots themselves may be the ‘Mark of the Beast’) but the most popular seems to be that the chips will be used to track people.

Even if it were possible to do this by way of a shot of vaccine, considering the fact that we all have a tracking device in our pockets that most of us can’t live without, why go to the trouble?

This hasn’t stopped bad actors like Roger Stone from spreading this nonsense to an increasingly divorced from reality right wing media without pushback, “Whether Bill Gates played some role in the creation and spread of this virus is open for vigorous debate… He and other globalists are using it for mandatory vaccinations and microchipping people so we know if they’ve been tested.” the proud ‘dirty trickster’ told rightwing radio talker Joe Piscapo in April, a conversation spread widely by the Rupert Murdoch owned tabloid, the New York Post.

The suspicions on the right regarding the Microsoft founder’s supposed aims multiplied as he became one of the main private sector faces trusted by the mainstream press to speak with authority about the pandemic. Despite the ease with which the conspiracy theories can be dismissed, they’ve obscured the fact that Gates, as intelligent as he may be, is not an epidemiologist or medical professional and the opinions and possible motivations of one of the world’s richest men should have been reported on more critically.

One likely reason for this was offered by an investigative piece that appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review last August.

After examining 20,000 grants provided by the Gates Foundation until June of the same year, reporter Tim Schwab found that $250 million had been doled out to various news organizations. These included a mix of public and for profit outlets that included, “the BBC, NBC, Al Jazeera, ProPublica, National Journal, The Guardian, Univision, Medium, the Financial Times, The Atlantic, the Texas Tribune, Gannett, Washington Monthly, Le Monde, and the Center for Investigative Reporting.”

This has obviously impacted the way Gates has been covered, but his humanitarian mask slipped a little during a recent interview with the UK’s Sky News in which he tried to make the case for not providing the formulas for vaccines to poorer nations so that the immunization effort can take on a more global character.

“Well, there’s only so many vaccine factories in the world, and people are very serious about the safety of vaccines,” the former CEO began, “And so moving something that had never been done — moving a vaccine from, say, a [Johnson & Johnson] factory into a factory in India — it’s novel. It’s only because of our grants and our expertise that can happen at all. The thing that’s holding things back, in this case, is not intellectual property. There’s not like some idle vaccine factory, with regulatory approval, that makes magically safe vaccines. You know, you’ve got to do the trials on these things, and every manufacturing process has to be looked at in a very careful way.”

His argument seems to be about process, boiling down his opinion that there aren’t enough factories. This should have led to one question: why does Bill Gates get to decide this and where is his usual optimism about the system’s ability to meet such challenges? India, which he mentions by way of example, is a poor one as much of the world’s supply of generic drugs are produced there and factories in many countries have offered their capacity to help with the effort.

Regardless, long before he recast himself as a philathropist, Gates was an absolutist in terms of intellectual property rights and even prior to the Sky interview, his actions in terms of the Oxford, later Astrazenaca vaccine, which was initially planned as a formula that would be freely available to all drug manufacturers based on the vast amount of public money that made it possible, the Gates Foundation threw its weight (and money) around to ensure that the vaccine would be licensed to just one company with no guarantee about pricing.

This intervention is already having real world consequences, creating a kind of vaccine apartheid sure to leave poorer nations behind.

As reported by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, “Uganda, for example, has announced a deal for millions of vaccines from AstraZeneca, at a price of $7 a dose – more than three times what the EU paid for the same jab. Including transport fees, it will cost $17 to fully vaccinate one Ugandan.”

Even if the two things aren’t related, it’s suspicious that Gates is profiting greatly from another for profit vaccine whose value could have been reduced by a free competitor. As explained by independent journalist Jordan Schachtel, “In September of 2019, Bill Gates spent $55MM on a pre-ipo equity investment into BioNtech, which later partnered with Pfizer to make its mRNA vax. That Gates investment is now worth over $550 million dollars.”

This creates a perverse and risky incentive to allow the pandemic to continue in poorer countries. It could also prove counterproductive in the long run as Joseph Stiglitz ad Lori Wallach explained in a recent Washington Post opinion piece, “Waiving intellectual property rights so developing countries could produce more vaccines would make a big difference in reaching global herd immunity. Otherwise, the pandemic will rage largely unmitigated among a significant share of the world’s population, resulting in increased deaths and a greater risk that a vaccine-resistant variant puts the world back on lockdown.”

More recently, besides a project his foundation funded to release millions of genetically modified FriendlyTM mosquitos into the Florida Keys to combat malaria, Gates has been pitching himself as a more realistic advocate for action on climate change than those who have been fighting to put it on the global agenda for years. Towards this end, his new book ‘How to Avoid a Climate Disaster’ is supposed to offer some answers.

The main one as Kate Aronoff explained in The New Republic, is to socialize the costs to business of dealing with the crisis but keeping the profits in private hands.

The progressive left needs to confront the fact that plutocratic philanthropists like Gates care much more about preserving the systems that continue to multiply their wealth and the adulation of their peers than actual solidarity for those poor people they say are their main concern. If the politics of neoliberalism could be manifested in just one person, that person would look a lot like Bill Gates.

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